Have you ever wondered what it would be like to research your family’s culinary
heritage? For me, the menu would consist of pierogi, kielbasa, and stuffed
cabbage. The smell of beef and rice cooking on the stovetop coupled with the
scent of boiling cabbage brings back such delectable memories. To this day, I
have never found anyone who can roll cabbage leaves as expertly as my grandma.
Without a doubt, there is nothing better than a home-cooked meal.
This month’s Jen's Jewels
Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
knows firsthand what it’s like to yearn for some familial dishes. A journalist
by trade, she returns to her homeland of Singapore to partake in a culinary
journey documented in her new release A TIGER IN THE KITCHEN.
With the help of family and friends, she learns step by step how to prepare some
of her ancestors’ most cherished dishes. Through amusing mishaps and some
painstaking experiences, she has created a fascinating memoir filled with just
the right blend of humor and expertise.
As part of this interview, Hyperion Voice has generously donated five
copies for you, my favorite readers, to try to win. So, don’t forget to look for
the trivia question at the end. And as always, thanks for making Jen’s Jewels a part of your
Jen: From journalism to fashion reporting for the Wall Street Journal,
your career has mirrored your innate spirit for adventure. So that my readers
may have a glimpse into the life of the woman behind the words, please share
with us your educational and professional background.
Cheryl: I wrote my first short story when I was five --
a silly little piece scribbled on the ripped-out pages of an old datebook of my
mother's that was about a young woman who was pregnant and didn't know it. The
magic of creating something in my head and crafting a little story to share that
thought with the world was very seductive -- I read voraciously as a child and
eventually fell in love with journalism as a way to tell the stories of
fascinating people and times. Growing up in Singapore, a rather straight-laced
society where subjects like finance, math, and science are still generally
valued over creative endeavors, I wasn't sure how I was going to go about doing
this. But I applied for college in the United States and enrolled in
Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, one of the best in the
country. As a college student, I wasn't sure if I'd stay in the United States
after graduating so I took internships in cities as disparate as possible, my
small way of trying to get to know this country. This led to me hanging out with
Harley Davidson enthusiasts in Topeka, Kan., interviewing gypsies in about their
burial rituals in Portland, Ore., covering July 4 in Washington, D.C., and
chronicling the life and times of the Boomerang Pleasure Club, a group of
Italian-American men that had been getting together to cook, play cards and gab
about women for decades in their storefront "clubhouse" in Chicago.
I've worked at the Wall Street Journal, the Baltimore Sun, In Style magazine,
among other places. In journalism, writing and life in general, I've always
embraced the sentiment that Emily Hahn, who wrote about the Congo, Shanghai and
Hong Kong in the 1930s and 1940s for the New Yorker, expressed when explaining
her drive to explore the world, do the unexpected and live life on her own
terms. She simply said: "Nobody said not to go."
Jen: Having spent some time covering not only the police beat but also
the arts, entertainment, and fashion news here in Baltimore, please share with
us your opinion as to why we have earned the right to call our home Charm City?
And, what secret spot or hidden gem is worth checking out?
Cheryl: Years ago, I heard Oprah speak of her time in Baltimore with
great fondness -- she said, "Baltimore grew me up." And that's how I'll always
feel about the city -- so many people I met there were so very warm and giving.
It was a wonderful place to work and the people I met on the job were endlessly
fascinating. When I worked there, Canton was just becoming what it is now and
was one of my favorite spots -- I loved the combination of the beautiful
waterfront and the old factory buildings that were just getting renovated. But
my favorite spot in Baltimore will always be the Midtown Yacht Club -- I'm a big
softie for old-school newspaper watering holes, the place where reporters and
editors go after deadline to toss back a beer and swap war stories. When I was
at the Baltimore Sun, that was our spot.
Jen: Born and raised in Singapore, your childhood is filled with memories
of a family- centered culture based on tradition. Fast-forward to your college
years in the U.S. where you had your first taste of the American way of life.
First of all, what was the driving force behind your decision to pursue an
American education? And, please describe for us your experiences adjusting to
the cultural differences encountered along the way.
Cheryl: When I was in high school, I did an internship at the Straits
Times, which is the country's national newspaper. As an intern, I did an expose
of an illegal puppy farm and when the story ran, the government swooped in and
sanctioned the owners. I was hooked on journalism after seeing the power of the
written word and wanted to learn more about the craft in a country in which
journalism truly flourished. I was very inspired by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein after
reading ALL THE PRESIDENT’S
MEN. Singapore is a very modern country -- Starbucks is almost as ubiquitous
as traditional Asian food stands in some parts of the city-state -- so adjusting
to life in the U.S. wasn't as difficult as one might expect. I'd grown up
watching American TV, listening to American music, seeing American film. I did
miss Singaporean food tremendously, however -- even today, it's hard to find
places in the U.S. that make authentic, good Singaporean dishes.
Jen: In 2010, you became an artist in residence at the Yaddo Artists’
colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. For those not familiar with the program,
please provide for us some background as well as why you chose to attend.
Cheryl: I've been a massive Carson McCullers fan for years
and had been wanting to go to Yaddo since I found out years ago that she'd spent
time there and wrote some of her significant works there. It's a breathtakingly
beautiful place -- gorgeous old houses on 400 acres of woods. I can't describe
the feeling of waking up in a storied place like that, knowing that so many
incredibly talented artists have been there before you -- and feeling like you
have all that to live up to.
The amount of great work that's been produced there is mind-boggling: John Cheever, who
supposedly wrote his best work while at Yaddo, has described the colony as
having seen "more distinguished activity in the arts than any other piece of
ground in the English-speaking community and perhaps the world." Yaddo artists
have won 64 Pulitzer Prizes, 27 MacArthur fellowships, 61 National Book Awards.
Besides Cheever and McCullars, noteworthy Yaddo writers have included Flannery O'Connor, James Baldwin, Philip Roth and Sylvia Plath, to name just
a few. Mario Puzo
wrote "THE GODFATHER"
Highsmith wrote STRANGERS ON A TRAIN in
there." I remain hugely grateful to Yaddo for the time and space that was
crucial to me finishing A
TIGER IN THE KITCHEN. If you're looking for a new non-profit to donate to --
make it Yaddo.
Jen: Your latest endeavor A TIGER IN THE KITCHEN A
Memoir of Food and Family takes you back to your roots. Please share with us
Cheryl: As a child, I'd always been governed by my writing ambitions and
had never expressed any interest in learning how to cook. To me, I'd always
equated cooking with weakness -- the traditional woman's role in Singapore
society, something I was determined to avoid. But as I got older, the higher I
climbed in my career, I started to feel like something was missing. I started
taking baby steps in the kitchen, teaching myself to bake and make simple
dishes. Even as I got more confident in the kitchen, I still found myself
thinking about the cookies and dishes that I'd grown up eating in Singapore and
wishing that I'd taken the time to learn how to make them. My paternal
grandmother was a fearless cook. I had always regretted never asking her to
teach me -- so I decided to take a year to travel back to Singapore to ask my
aunties, my maternal grandmother and my mother to finally teach me how to cook.
I saw the book as culinary anthropology -- by slowing down my fast-paced life to
be in the kitchen with my family, I didn't just learn how to make my
grandmother's pineapple tarts, my auntie Khar Imm’s salted vegetable and duck
soup, my auntie Khar Moi’s pandan-skin moon cakes -- I was also learning my
family stories. And what I learned of my family history was astonishing --
secret gambling dens, opium addictions, womanizing, my family had it all.
Jen: In terms of nuts and bolts, how did you organize the project? And,
what were your specific goals and did you achieve them?
Cheryl: I spent one lunar calendar year traveling to Singapore to learn
how to cook -- I tried to hit the major festivals in which my family would be
preparing specific meals or dishes: the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts, for
example, where Singaporeans prepare dishes like pink rice cakes to appease the
hungry spirits who are supposedly released from hell for a month to roam the
earth. I also learned how to make pineapple tarts, which are a Chinese New Year
treat, and mooncakes, which are eaten to celebrate the mid-Autumn festival. My
goal was to learn these recipes, yes, but more important to learn about my
family -- I definitely achieved both.
Jen: Okay, let’s talk about the food. In simple terms, what are the major
differences between Singaporean food and American dishes? What spices are
prevalent, and what are the mainstay ingredients?
Cheryl: Singapore itself is a mix of several cultures -- when the British
colonized it in the 19th Century, it encouraged traders from India, Malaysia and
China to settle there. Over time, the distinctive cuisine that emerged in
Singapore was a blend of Chinese, Indian, Malay as well as European flavors with
a heavy focus on seafood, since the country is an island. One of Singapore's
signature dishes, for example, is chili crab, which is a dish of crab in a very
spicy, egg- streaked gravy that's often served with steamed mantou, which are
Chinese dumplings. Right there, you have several cultures -- and spices from
different cultures -- represented in one dish. The spices that are prevalent
include turmeric, coriander, cumin -- you'll see these in all kinds of dishes in
Singapore. It's generally far spicier than most American dishes -- it's not for
the faint of heart.
Jen: I had to chuckle when you enthusiastically described your on-line
bread making project. I, too, tried a sort of similar challenge; however, I gave
up and used a bread making machine instead! What surprised you most about baking
bread? And, which type of bread was your favorite to bake and why?
Cheryl: What actually surprised me the most about baking bread was how
easy it was -- as long as you were patient, which I wasn't always. I wished I'd
learned to do it long before -- the smell and taste of freshly baked bread is
just intoxicating. My favorite breads were the Italians -- I'm an Italophile
through and through and was thrilled to try my hand at breads like pane
Siciliano, a nutty semolina bread that's peppered with sesame seeds and comes in
a beautiful "S" shape. (It's fabulous with a hearty taleggio.) My favorite bread
of all, however, was the casatiello, which is a bread that's studded with bits
of salami and pockets of melted cheese. It's unforgettable.
Jen: Of all of the dishes you learned to make, which was the most
rewarding to master and why?
Cheryl: Otak, which is a spicy fish mousse, was probably the dish that I
never thought I'd ever learn -- it's incredibly labor- intensive, for starters.
(It takes two days -- you make the chili paste on the first day, let it cool
overnight, then make the mousse the next day.) And also, in Singapore, not many
home cooks know how to make it any more -- it tends to be something you buy. As
a result, it's truly a dying recipe. My late grandmother, however, always made
her own otak and had made sure to share that recipe with her son, my uncle,
before she died. So it was very special for me to be able to learn it. I hope to
be able to pass it on to my own children -- if I ever get around to having them
Jen: Tanglin Ah-Ma’s pineapple tarts sound scrumptious. What makes these
treats stand apart from others?
Cheryl: There are many kinds of pineapple tarts in Singapore -- and I've
sampled a great deal of them -- but my grandmother's will always be the best.
They're a flaky, slightly salty butter cookie topped with dense and sweet
homemade pineapple jam. The jam has the taste of cinnamon and pandan, which is a
Southeast Asian leaf that's similar in scent to vanilla but more complex, and is
delicious on its own. On a buttery cookie, however, the jam is just scrumptious.
Jen: You mention your husband quite frequently throughout the book as
your culinary quest unfolds. How did this project positively affect your
marriage despite your being in Singapore on a consistent basis?
Cheryl: My husband is an incredibly understanding person -- I couldn't
have done this without his support and faith. Being apart for such long
stretches was difficult, of course, but he understood that this was a quest that
had been gnawing at me and that I had been yearning to reconnect with my family
and my history. Of course, there was also an obvious payoff for him at the end
-- I was coming back from Singapore with recipes for fantastic dishes that he
knows and loves.
Jen: Tacking onto the last question, how did it also affect your family
left behind in Singapore?
Cheryl: My family was incredibly welcoming and eager to teach me -- I had
not spent much time in Singapore since I left as a teenager for college, so it
was wonderful to be able to spend this much time with them in an unhurried way.
Instead of packing quick visits into a short trip, we were able to spend hours
in the kitchen just hanging out, cooking and chit-chatting. This enabled me to
get to know them a little more.
Jen: What did you take away from this project? And, what did you learn
most about yourself in the process?
Cheryl: I learned that you shouldn't be afraid to slow your life down and
take a different path, even if that route is unknown and somewhat terrifying. I
had been working so hard in a profession that I loved, so focused on climbing
higher and higher that I wasn't noticing what I was missing, which was
meaningful time with my family and friends. And I was glad I took the time to go
home and hang out in the kitchen with my aunties and grandmother -- it was clear
toward the end of my year in Singapore that my grandmother's memory was starting
to go. She was not only forgetting recipes for her signature dishes, but she was
also forgetting who we were. It was the right time for me to go home and I'm
grateful that I did.
Jen: Let’s switch gears now and have you talk about your blog, A TIGER IN THE KITCHEN.
Cheryl: The blog was started as a place for me to put thoughts,
photographs, recipes and tidbits I was gathering during my year of traveling for
the book. I'd not done much food writing before so this was a way for me to have
a little fun and experiment with writing about the subject -- I try to tell
little stories behind the food or the recipes. I'm obsessed with family recipes
and the stories behind them - - I try to share them on the blog.
Jen: Are you currently at work on your next project? And if so, what are
you able to share with my readers?
Cheryl: Yes I am -- it's a book about women in their thirties. I can't
say more right now but I hope you enjoy it as much as A TIGER IN THE KITCHEN.
Jen: Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to stop
by and chat with my readers. A TIGER IN THE KITCHEN is a
fascinating culinary journey. I wish you the best of luck with your memoir. It
truly is a gastronomic delight.
Cheryl: Thank you for having me. I hope your readers who are on Twitter
will stop by and say hello. I’m @CherylTan88
I hope you have enjoyed my interview with Cheryl. Please stop by your favorite
bookstore or local library branch and pick up a copy of A TIGER IN THE KITCHEN
today. Better yet, how would you like to win one instead? Okay, be one of five
readers with the correct answer to the following trivia question and you could
win! Good luck!
of tart does Tanglin Ah-Ma make?
Later this month, I will be bringing to you my interview with New York
Times Bestselling author Susan Elizabeth Phillips. You won’t want to miss it!
Until next time...
6 comments posted.
Pineapple tarts sound heavenly! I have had a pineapple empanada which is really yummy, but a tart sounds even better.
(Sandy Fielder 3:11pm February 8, 2011)